This morning’s lesson brought my client’s second course on Western Boxing for Martial Arts Cross Training to an end. It has been a remarkable course, full of self-discovery and research. We have not only referenced and taking tips from information taken from the highlights of the greats in Boxing history, but we have kept the focus on improving specific aspects of my client’s game. The latter point was never more evident than in today’s lesson, bringing everything back to the beginning and looking at key weaknesses my client wished to address in his own punching game.
The lesson began with mirror footwork. This progressed onto cornering and escaping from corners using footwork only. Next we revised head movement combinations and tactics, working through slipping inside and outside, bobbing and weaving, and ducking. We brought in the V-step of Willie Pep and then the aggressive close-in bobbing of Tyson. Moving backwards, we went over Leonard’s L-step, giving an opportunity to bring in the straight lead hook and jabbing upper-cut. Then it was Ali’s drawing anchor punch. Clinch brought us onto Johnson, Duran and Frazier. Johnson’s canny tying up tricks, Duran’s brilliant coordination of grappling with striking (harking back to the days of bareknuckle pugilism and lesson still being learnt by today’s MMA) and Frazier’s head movement in the clinch.
This revision section was then put under the metaphorical spotlight with a lengthy round of light sparring. Here I was always able to assess areas for improvement. I did my best to prompt weaknesses in his fight game and then highlight them to feed into the rest of the lesson’s training.
My client was keen to work on tightening up his slipping and also his general defence when advancing with the jab. This had come out in the previous two lessons and I had been particularly watchful of it during our sparring session this morning. He tends to commit a sin I was notorious for doing and is quite common, moving his eyes off the target in a defensive flinch when punching with the lead hand. I recall doing this a lot when I first transferring into full-contact training. In fact, I recall getting a hell of a reality check that made me re-think my martial arts training in general.
The first thing that needed to be addressed was to get my client to look at the target as he advanced and to not shy away. However, even his improved head movement it was clear another tactic was required to improve confidence and to provide a solution. I decided to cover the shoulder-roll defence to help mitigate this problem with my client. It wasn’t the immediate solution to my problem, but it made sense in his instance. Many great boxers utilise leaning back to a great effect. The tactic can lead opponents to over-balance and the upper-body movement means gives the illusion of that the fighter given ground when, in fact, he can successfully spring back with a counter-offensive. Fighters like Ali, Roy Mayweather Jnr and Prince Naseem Hamid was experts at using long lean-backs. Moving into the eclectic world of American Kickboxing, we find the world champion and pioneer, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace promoting the teaching of this tactic, which had a place in the 1960s Sport Karate he had moved over from as well as the aforementioned Western Boxing.
I am always wary about shoulder-rolls when it comes to cross-training. It is one of those techniques that evolved from a specific rule-set. Admittedly a good cross-trainer should suspend any judgements outside of his particular area of training. However, there is always the risk of picking up certain habits where the dangers outweigh the benefits. When I did my intensive Muay Thai training at Hayes Muay Thai/Warwick Warriors, Tony Hayes, who had had a good deal of experience in Western Boxing, was keen to point out the problems of leaning away from an opponent. A good number of Muay Thai techniques are thrown in a downward angled trajectory. Even American Kickboxing and Sport Karate would develop something that resembled the MMA superman punch that would be perfect to use against a lean-back. Modern Muay Thai has also adopted this jumping punch, which might be seen as an extension of the infamous “monkey climbs the tree” smash-down elbow. Interestingly, the mixed styles bout that would win a huge amount of respect for Muay Thai in 1988 when arguably the best American kickboxer of the time was defeated by a champion nak muay looked like it might go the other way thanks to a version of this technique.
Likewise, the width and angle of the stance favoured by those who use a lot of leaning is another area of concern for me when teaching this aspect of cross-training. One can see why Wallace would promote this tactic so much. All his kicks came off his famously fast left leg (he had injured his dominant right leg in a Judo accident, making it virtually useless as an attacking tool) and he adopted a side on stance, using the traditional Sport Karate horse stance. The stance protected his weakened side, gave his newly forged kicking leg centre stage for action and allowed him all the benefits a western boxing enjoys with the shoulder-roll/lean defence. Sport Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu follow similar default principles as European fencing in many respects. The fighters typically use their lead leg like a sword, placing it as close to the opponent as possible in order to score points as quickly as possible and a side-on stance favours such a side-on stance. Such a stance would eventually fall out of favour in American Kickboxing and was rarely seen in European, Dutch, K1 Kickboxing and Muay Thai for good reason: leg kicks for a start.
Wallace’s stance might be seen as an extreme version of the modern Western Boxing stance, which is typically more angled. The fact that western boxers have the most sophisticated footwork in combat sports seems to defy the MMA maxim of “wider stance for stability, narrower stance for mobility”. Nevertheless, a clear problem when facing an opponent with wide, almost side-on stance is that the lead leg becomes vulnerable to the low kicks of the nak muay and the ankle-picks/single-leg takedowns of the wrestler. However, for the purpose of training someone in Western Boxing in order to develop its many attributes and to be able to spar effectively within this discipline certain concessions have to be made. You simply cannot stand square-on like a nak muay when facing Western’s Boxing volume and variety of punches.
We widened the stance a bit more and I had to make my client angle off to be less like a nak muay. To confuse matters a bit, my client will be switching to Muay Thai next lesson. I will need to advise on some switching training for his homework so that he retains these new corrections whilst not negatively impacting on his new course. I taught him to lean away only slightly and to raise his shoulder. I am not confident to get into the habit of having a cross-trainer, especially at this stage, to stretch back off a wide stance for reasons previously discussed. We drilled the shoulder roll on the focus mitts, integrating it into a combination that also promoted slipping and footwork. This was then sparred in a restrictive environment, forcing him to use the shoulder roll and associated deflections more and more head movement. He then sparred with me in the same situation in order to demonstrate what could be done. We then switched back again. This was then fed back onto the focus mitts to integrate these techniques into the bigger picture. Finally we did some free-sparring to test this integration.
Photo Credit to “Mighty Fighter”, where Samuel Ha offers an excellent overview of the shoulder roll, including why, when and when not to shoulder roll. Here is their video tutorial on the subject: